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Turkmenistan: President's Death Brings Muted World Reaction

By Breffni O'Rourke

December 21, 2006 (RFE/RL) -- The death today of Turkmenistan's president for life, Saparmurat Niyazov, has brought a restrained international reaction.

The 66-year-old Niyazov died of cardiac arrest in the early hours today. "Turkmenbashi" -- or the great leader of the Turkmen, as he was known -- led one of the most oppressive regimes in the world.

A New Era?

Aware of this, international reaction today was temperate in its sympathy, expressing mostly general hope that the Turkmen people would enjoy a smooth transition into a new era without Niyazov, who has ruled since 1985.

"The embassy has expressed its condolences to the Turkmen people on the loss of President Niyazov," said Andrew Paul, the U.S. Embassy spokesman in Ashgabat. "But also the embassy of the United States hopes for a peaceful, smooth constitutional succession."

European Union spokeswoman Emma Udwin told RFE/RL's Uzbek Service that the EU hopes for progress toward democracy.

"We learned about the sudden death of President Niyazov this morning; we expect the succession process to be carried out in accordance with the constitution and the rule of law and we hope, of course, that Turkmenistan will again embark on a road towards democracy when a new leader comes to power in the country," she said.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov also called for the rule of law to be observed.

"We hope that the handover of power [in Turkmenistan] is carried out in the framework of the law," he said, "that continuity in our relations is ensured, that the new leadership works for the good of the citizens of Turkmenistan, for the good of all those who live in the country, for the development of relations with Russia, and for maintaining stability in the Central Asian region."

Regional Reaction

Turkey expressed sadness, and Foreign Minister Abdullah Gul said Ankara does not want to see Turkmenistan falling into a period of chaos.

In Tajikistan, Moheddin Kabiri, the leader of the Islamic Renaissance Party, expressed similar sentiments to RFE/RL's Tajik Service.

"[Niyazov's] death will have an impact on the political situation in Turkmenistan and also in the region," Kabiri said. "We hope, however, that it will not lead to political instability."

Kazakh poet Duisenbek Qanatbaev -- who translated Niyazov's poetic works -- expressed sorrow at Niyazov's death, and hopes that Turkmenistan will remain stable.

"As a human being, as a poet, as a person who was born in Turkmenistan, I'm in grief for the death of the leader of our cousin nation," Qanatbaev said. "It certainly affects my mood. And the reason is that any nation that lost its leader is, at least temporarily, an orphan nation. Unrest might take place, lack of unanimity might arise. All these will be a burden for the ordinary people. But this is an ancient nation, and they will be able to face it with stoicism. And I believe that the Turkmen nation will be able to choose capable people and to move toward further development. I express my condolences."

Annette Bohr, a Central Asia specialist with the London-based think tank Chatham House, also reflects on the possibility of unrest. She told RFE/RL that Niyazov was careful during his rule not to let any political rivals approach the reins of power.

'Infighting Is A Possibility'

Niyazov simultaneously held the posts of president, prime minister, armed forces commander in chief, and head of the Democratic Party, the only registered political party in Turkmenistan.

The result of this concentration of power is that Turkmenistan is now left rudderless, without clear political succession.

"Given the absence of an heir apparent, regime change in Turkmenistan could indeed thrust this country into a conflict between disgruntled former officials and officials of the state apparatus who will undoubtedly try to hang on to power; infighting is a possibility," Bohr said.

The Paris-based press freedom group Reporters Without Borders (RSF) called on Turkmenistan to introduce new freedoms.

"We would like to underline the necessity, now that President Niyazov is dead, for the upcoming power in Turkmenistan, is to implement changes, deep changes in Turkmenistan so that the 5 million people there enjoy a freer country; and we ask the people in power right now in Turkmenistan to free all the journalists in jail and also all the political prisoners," said Elsa Vidal, who heads RSF's desk for post-Soviet countries.

However, analyst Bohr does not see Niyazov's death as an opportunity for Turkmenistan to start down a democratic road.

"A much more likely scenario is that it will continue to be undemocratic for the foreseeable future; there are simply no seeds to build upon at present," Bohr said.

Opposition In Exile

Some exiled Turkmen opposition activists say, however, that they plan to return home immediately to set up an opposition political structure.

"In Turkmenistan there is no opposition, they all sit in prisons or under home arrest. But outside the country opposition exists and it is coming back," activist Parakhad Yklymov of the Republican Party said today in Sweden, according to Reuters.

In neighboring Uzbekistan, Foreign Ministry official Ilham Zakirov spoke of his country's good relations with Turkmenistan.

"We are going to send a telegram of condolences and, indeed, it would reflect the official point of view," he said. "If there would be a state funeral we will definitely send our delegation too. We have a good neighborly relations with Turkmenistan."

(RFE/RL correspondent Golnaz Esfandiari contributed to this article.)

Copyright (c) 2006 RFE/RL, Inc. Reprinted with the permission of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, 1201 Connecticut Ave., N.W. Washington DC 20036.

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